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Heavy Meddle: Help! I Work In A Sexist Hell

A woman tries to figure out how to negotiate an industry awash in chauvinism. (Markus Spiske/flickr)
A woman tries to figure out how to negotiate an industry awash in chauvinism. (Markus Spiske/flickr)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I work in a male-dominated field. Industry-wide, it’s about 75 percent male. But in my office, it’s more like 95 percent. As a result, I deal with a lot of passive-aggressive misogyny. There are men who won’t look me in the eye, others talk over me in meetings. I’m frequently left out of social gatherings, and excluded from inter-office personal jokes.

I let a lot of it slide, but I have a lot of pent-up anger. I’m also worried about my long-term career prospects. And looking ahead to five or so years from now when I’m ready to start a family, I don’t want to be written off.

Any advice for how to cope, and how to be pro-active about my professional future?

Signed,
It’s a Man’s World

PHOTO

Dear IMW,

As I’ve said many times, the patriarchy dies hard. Let me now add this corollary: it has to die. I say that as a man raised in a house full of men, a former jock and a guilt-stricken sports fan. Because the patriarchy, as a collective, makes really bad decisions.

Let me quote my hero Kurt Vonnegut on this subject:

"Wherever you went there were women who would do anything for food or protection for themselves and their children and the old people … the whole point of war is to put women everywhere in that condition. It’s always the men against the women, with the men only pretending to fight among themselves … the ones who pretend the hardest get their pictures in the papers and medals afterwards."

The problem, as you know, is that men still possess about 99 percent of the power in the world. And they are not inclined to give any of that power away unless compelled to do so. (It remains a wonder to me that men voted to grant women the vote.)

But you’re looking for advice, not a sermon, so let me offer this: any time you swallow unfair behavior that is predicated on entrenched male power, you are growing that toxic swamp of rage inside you. And you are aiding and abetting the patriarchy. Because the whole thing is built on entitlement. Men (like me!) don’t realize we’re being jerks, because nobody has mansplained this to us.

If you are being talked over in a meeting, you have the right to say, as politely as possible, 'Excuse me, I wasn’t finished speaking.'

So.

If you are being talked over in a meeting, you have the right to say, as politely as possible, “Excuse me, I wasn’t finished speaking.” Ditto on any professional gatherings from which you are excluded. If a colleague won’t look you in the eye, you have the right to say (again, politely!) that you’d feel more comfortable if they looked at you when you converse. There’s nothing “radical” about these requests. They’re predicated on a pretty universal notion of fairness and respect: the Golden Rule.

But some of the sexism you’re encountering seems to involve social gatherings. And while I have no doubt that some of this has to do with sexism — going for drinks with the boys is a central part of keeping the good old boys network strong — I don’t think you can demand to be included in such private gatherings.

So your best course is to speak up when this sexism bleeds into the workplace and simply try to ignore it otherwise.

One thing that might help is to step back and realize that men abuse their power precisely because they feel weak and frightened inside. Scratch the surface of any chauvinist pig and you’ll find an insecure little boy. That’s what all the joking and fraternizing is about. It’s pack behavior.

You’ve also asked about your long-term prospects, in particular anxieties about how you’ll be treated if you choose to have a family. You are wise to be thinking about these issues now, because one of the most insidious and intractable aspects of the patriarchy is the relegation of mothers to the “suspect employee” category.

I realize that articulating the need for fair treatment in your workplace isn’t easy. But it beats the hell out of having to carry around all that pent-up anger.

This is a much larger issue, one that needs to be addressed through our political and legal system. But it boils down to a pretty simple equation: equal work deserves equal pay. Period.

If you have concerns about the inherent inequalities within your industry, you need to be pro-active. This means researching the policies of any potential employer toward working parents. It means, if necessary, politely raising a stink. And it might mean adapting your talents to an industry, or an office, that does not discriminate against mothers in particular, and parents in general.

It sucks that the onus for this redounds to you and other women. That’s the patriarchy at work again. Men don’t like having to confront their own privilege. So we blame women who stand up for themselves. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.

All this to say, I realize that articulating the need for fair treatment in your workplace isn’t easy. But it beats the hell out of having to carry around all that pent-up anger.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: The obvious problem with my response is that I can only write from the perspective of a man. I’m certain I’ve missed the mark in various ways, or oversimplified things. So I call upon you, the reader, to help me out here. Women in particular, but men as well. What more does this woman need to hear? Please offer your take in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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